The John F. Kennedy Forum at the Institute of Politics (IOP) has a rich tradition of hosting conversations featuring the prominent voices of the day—industry experts, academics, human rights advocates, historians, politicians, and pundits. The free events are valuable to students and the community at large.

This fall, an extraordinary set of events—beginning with a virtual conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy—provided a reflection of the times we live in and the issues shaping our lives today. Representative Liz Cheney and Senator Ed Markey added perspective to politics. Dr. Anthony Fauci shared his thoughts on public health in America, and Justice Stephen Breyer gave a personal view of the nation’s highest court, just to name a few.

For Harvard undergraduate Hannah Bottarel, who co-chairs the Forum program, the experience is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “If you had told my 16-year-old self that I would get to ask Madeleine Albright (my childhood idol) a question, chat with Dr. Anthony Fauci, or moderate a conversation with Rep. Liz Cheney, I simply would not believe you,” she says. The Forum’s purpose, she believes, is summed up in the IOP mission statement:

“We strive to engage our students mentally and morally by hosting candid, non-partisan dialogue on politics, public service, and relevant affairs, introducing them to our world’s current, former, and emerging leaders. By educating students on the lessons of the past, the problems of the present, and the opportunities of the future, we hope to prepare them for a life of servant leadership and imbue them with a dedication to the common good.”

Setti Warren speaking at the JFK Jr. Forum.

“We bring practitioners here who will engage our students and our community in ways that will inspire them to get involved.”

Setti D. Warren, IOP Interim Director

Established in 1966 as a memorial to President Kennedy, the IOP occupies a unique role at HKS—engaging with Harvard’s undergraduates. While the JFK Jr. Forum, called “Harvard’s premier arena for political speech, discussion, and debate,” is its most visible feature, the institute offers 16 programs to students interested in public service as well as career exploration opportunities, including 100 paid summer internships around the world.

Setti D. Warren, the interim director of the IOP, says that the spirit of the IOP is the driving force behind the Forums. “We bring practitioners here who will engage our students and our community in ways that will inspire them to get involved,” he says. “It's important to us that we meet the moment politically, and we meet the moment with regard to public policy.”

“I am really proud of the IOP team and staff who facilitate our amazing range of guests, from an international standpoint, a domestic standpoint, from public health to the challenges of democracy,” Warren says.

The diversity of speakers draws students from all areas of the university.  LaShyra Nolen, a dual MPP/MD candidate, is a frequent attendee. “The discussions make the everyday grind of class feel worth it because I get to hear from leaders who are enacting change in ways I hope to in the future,” she says. “As a dual-degree medical student I especially enjoyed hearing from Dr. Anthony Fauci as his leadership has shaped so much of my journey as a future physician activist.”

Jonah Simon, a Harvard freshman majoring in government, attends as many Forums as he can. “One thing I love about the Forum is that it is so accessible to students,” he says. “The speakers always take several impromptu questions from the audience. I was even able to ask Rep. Cheney about her thoughts on the path back from Republican extremism.” 

As for future events, Warren says the Forum will cover a range of topics in the next few weeks: “We have guests that will address how the intersection of politics, public policy and entertainment come together. We will have guests that address women's empowerment.” 

All discussions, Warren says, promise to be engaging and thought provoking. The students agree. Simon notes, “Now more than ever, it is necessary to be constantly asking difficult questions to people in power, and the JFK Jr. Forum serves a critical role in facilitating this discourse.”

Photographs by Martha Stewart

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